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Galway Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Galway Kinnell

Introduction and Text of "Blackberry Eating"

Galway Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating" is an American, or innovative, sonnet; it offers no rime-pattern, but it does present a shift from the octave to the sestet, a quality that makes it resemble the Italian sonnet more than the English. Like the Italian sonnet also, Kinnell's American sonnet sections itself into two quatrains in the octave and two tercets in the sestet.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Blackberry Eating

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

Reading of Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating"

Commentary

The speaker in Galway Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating" compares the experience of eating blackberries to that of pronouncing his favorite words.

First Quatrain: Late September and Blackberries for Breakfast

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty

The speaker begins by stating plainly that he loves "to go out in late September" and pick blackberries to eat. But he does not simply gather them up in a basket to take back into his house; he eats them right from the stalks "for breakfast." His attraction to nature allows him to describe the blackberry patch quite vividly.

The speaker stands surrounded by "fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries." The adjective "icy" is questionable. It is only late September, and it is not likely that the berries could be so cold as to be called "icy." Perhaps, the dew has cooled them somewhat, but icy seems a questionable exaggeration. Another definition of "icy" is unfriendly, but the speaker certainly does not feel that these alluring, inviting pieces of fruit are unfriendly. (Sometimes the reader has to allow for the possibility that the poet has simply made a mistake that should have been revised.)

Second Quatrain: Penalty for Knowing

they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,

In the final line of the first quatrain, the speaker had begun the thought that the stalks of the blackberry are being penalized by having to support a spiny texture; their rough state is the "penalty" for "knowing the black art of blackberry-making."

As the speaker's attraction shows, the "penalty" has little effect. He is willing to endure the "prickly" stalks in order to get to the luscious fruit. The speaker, still standing among the blackberries, begins eating the berries directly from the stalks. Some of the berries just fall into his mouth because they are so ripe and ready to leave the stalks. He asserts, "the ripest berries / fall almost unbidden to my tongue."

First Tercet: From Blackberries to Words

as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,

At this point, increasing his playful tone, the speaker shifts from the blackberries to words. He finds that just as those ripe blackberries fall easily and deliciously onto his tongue, so do certain words sometimes. He gives examples of those "certain peculiar words / like strengths or squinched"; he describes them as "many-lettered, one syllabled lumps" which resemble the composition of the blackberry that is a clump of small drupelets.

Second Tercet: Playing on the Tongue

which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

When such a word as "strengths" or "squinched" falls into his mouth onto his tongue, he repeats it, mouths it, plays with it on his tongue over and over again to see what it feels like, what it tastes like, and of course, he listens to the sounds it will produce.

As he does with the words, so he dramatizes his "blackberry-eating in late September"—the words and berries, "which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well / in the silent, startled, icy, black language." The mystery of language and mystery of blackberry-eating become fused as he muses over the existence of both. Despite the distraction of the "icy" adjective opening the poem, its drama is fulfilled gloriously, giving the reader the delightful comparison of enjoying words as one would enjoy eating the black fruit in late September.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the purpose of Galway Kinnell's poem "Blackberry Eating" and how do you know?

Answer: The speaker in Galway Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating" compares the experience of eating blackberries to that of pronouncing his favorite words. I know because that's what the poem describes.

Question: What is the tone of the Galway Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating"?

Answer: The tone in Galway Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating" is playful

Question: What description in Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating" is most appealing?

Answer: Likely one good candidate for the "most appealing" is "the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries," but then what is most appealing would be based on opinion.

Question: Is the poem "Blackberry Eating" by Galway Kinnell a sonnet?

Answer: Galway Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating" is an American, or innovative, sonnet.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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